How Long Does It Take for Plastic to Biodegrade? (Who Knows!)

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Many of our grandparents can remember a time when they lived without any plastics. They managed to drink beverages on the go, carry groceries, and package products entirely with materials that were either compostable or completely recyclable. Since then, plastics have become ubiquitous. They’ve enabled great progress and convenience, but we’re only starting to understand the unexpected environmental consequences.

Yesterday I was strolling through Target and I overheard a little girl lecturing her dad. “Daddy, do you know how long that will last?! My teacher told us that Styrofoam will last for 5 million years! You shouldn’t buy that.”

Passing by that little scene put a smile on my face, and got me thinking about the fate of that disposable plastic product. How long would it last? I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the decay rate of most plastics is essentially unknown, because they have only been around for 70 to 80 years. During that time, no decomposition has been measured, because no organisms have evolved to effectively break plastic bonds. Typically cited rates for plastics like EPS to completely decompose are in the hundreds of thousands of years, but no one really knows.

The average american throws out 185 pounds of plastic every year. That’s more than I weigh! It’s quaint to imagine all of this plastic collected into one gigantic mass, out of sight, out of mind. But the scary reality is that this waste is being spread all over. At best, it’s ultimately mixed amongst many other misplaced resources thrown “away” into a landfill. But all too often, bit-by-bit, plastics are getting into the natural environment. When you walk down the sidewalk and see a discarded plastic spoon, realize that it will outlive you.

Imagine if one day you learned that in your pantry of food, some of the food wasn’t food at all… it was actually poison. But it still all looked the same to you, so you couldn’t tell what’s food and what’s poison.  That would be pretty scary! When plastics get into the environment, that’s the situation faced by many organisms, particularly those lower on the food chain. In the past, everything around them was either food or harmless. But today, bits of plastic are in their food pantry, and they can’t tell the difference between healthy nutrients and harmful plastics. In some areas of the Pacific Ocean Gyre, there are 6 times more bits of plastic, than bits of plankton. It’s getting into the food chain, and wreaking havoc.

Plastic pollution is a long-term ecological emergency. It’s very important to reduce our usage, recycle, and fight pollution. But ultimately, we need to shift to materials that fit within Earth’s evolved ecosystem. I don’t think we can afford to wait hundreds, thousands or perhaps millions of years for something to evolve to eat conventional plastics. At Ecovative, we’re committed to producing materials and products that will compost just like a tree branch. Coming up next in this series will be posts on our testing for backyard compost and also at industrial composting facilities.

– Sam Harrington

Everything is Energy

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True statements: Everything is energy. Energy flows to transform matter. At Ecovative, we are mindful of how the energy flows.

Our process fits within the earth’s carbon cycle, sequestering carbon atoms for the life of our Mushroom® Material products, and then slowly releasing carbon back to the soil or water upon composting. Walking into our manufacturing facility in Green Island, ‘Ecovators’ are not only attuned to the energy of the growing mycelium, but also to one another’s energy. We work in an atmosphere of compassion and caring for all.

The company also goes one step further: one day a week, I offer energy tune-ups for our employees. As a seasoned Healing Touch Certified Practitioner, beyond my role as the Mycologist at Ecovative, I see staff members for their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Typically, a one-hour session clears the energy field and restores balance to the energy centers (chakras) such that healing for the employee may proceed quickly.

Sometimes a headache may be relieved with ten minutes of hands-on intention and pain drain. At other times, I spend an hour with a client to uncover an emotional trauma from childhood that established an unhealthy pattern or mental framework. We work together using the breath to release trauma from the cells. Employees leave a session feeling calm, rejuvenated, and rebalanced. Here are some of their testimonials:

“Very relaxing and it was nice to allot time in a very busy day to focus on my energy and general well-being.”

“Complete and real sensation of mental clarity and release from physical pain.”

“Healing Touch immediately relieves any headaches I have, resolves my back tension, and keeps me mentally grounded when I am stressed or overwhelmed.”

When employees are happy and healthy, they are more productive. Research has shown that energy work, which induces the relaxation response, promotes a cascade of health benefits from stress reduction, to lowered cortisol and blood pressure, to enhanced immune function. Any practice or treatment such as meditation, Reiki, acupuncture, Healing Touch, and others that moves a person to an alpha brain wave state triggers this response. Companies are even investing in “Muse”, a headset that allows an employee to watch the relaxation response on their computer while they deepen their meditation.

Healing Touch is a small investment by our company that has a large impact on keeping the energy flow at a high vibration for the highest good of the employee, the team, and the fungi.

– Sue VanHook

Breakfast with the Co-Founders

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Ever wonder what it’s like to have a conversation with Ecovative’s Co-Founders, Eben and Gavin? Sure, you’ve probably seen some of the news clips and interviews they have done, and can probably get a sense of their personalities and thought processes. But what are they like in a casual setting with no cameras in front of them, deadlines to meet, or important decisions to make? We found that some of our newer employees were wondering the same thing.

In the last 8 years, Ecovative has grown from 2 employees to about 65 employees. With that dramatic increase, the onboarding process for new employees had to be revisited and carefully constructed. Ecovative’s culture revolves around open communication and a sense of community, so the question came up, ‘how can we continue our close-knit community when there are so many people?’

One of the steps Ecovative has taken towards resolving this is to introduce a new initiative called “Breakfast with the Co-Founders.” Once a month we make sure that all new employees have some face time with Eben and Gavin while enjoying some coffee, tea, bagels, donuts, and conversation. The group gathers in our kitchen area bright and early in the morning to discuss whatever comes to their minds. All reservations and job titles go out the window, and the floor is open for discussion.

This time is extremely valuable because it ensures that every new team member gets to know our co-founders early on. It reminds everyone that although we have the same goal of replacing unsustainable materials, each employee at Ecovative has a unique life outside of work and some very awesome interests.

For instance, I won’t forget the first Breakfast with the Co-Founders where two mechanical engineers, a communications rep, a production operator, a production manager, and a fungal strain technician sat down together over some delicious food. Although discussion started off slowly, suddenly we emerged into conversations that kept me wondering, “how did we even end up on this topic?” To give you an idea, some topics that stood out were the possibility of a real Jurassic Park, strange Russian literature (see Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov), and which state cheese is superior. The cheese discussion stemmed from the fact that one of our employees was from Wisconsin and the other grew up in Vermont. It was only fitting this evolved into a lengthy topic for discussion.

So I’m curious, what would you talk to Eben and Gavin about if you had the chance? Let us know by leaving a comment below or reaching out via twitter!

– Melissa Jacobsen

Compost: Let’s Break it Down

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Waste is a human invention. It could be argued that the concept of waste may have been developed 10-12 thousand years ago with the advent of agricultural surpluses. But it’s really only been in the past 100 years or so that the concept of waste has been doing serious damage. That’s because we’ve now invented materials, like plastics, that just don’t exist in nature. Plastics aren’t compatible with planet Earth.

In nature, there is no waste. Everything is food for something else. Tree “waste” (aka leaves) feed bugs and mushrooms, which feed animals, and animal “waste” fertilizes the trees (and also feeds bugs and mushrooms). But today, we humans are increasingly reliant on materials like plastic that don’t fit into natural systems.

Plastics are clogging our landfills, and poisoning marine life. These materials take many many lifetimes to break down. Frankly, we don’t really know how long it takes for plastic to break down, because it hasn’t happened yet. We’re starting to see signs of biological life evolving to recognize these techno-materials as food, but the evolutionary process can’t keep up with our generation of waste.

A lot of effort has gone into tweaking plastics to be compostable, and to be food for something in nature. Today you can find water bottles and chip bags made of bioplastics like PLA. If you put them in your home compost pile, you’ll likely be disappointed; even months later it will look the same. The reality is that many of these new bioplastics, including PLA, only break down at the very hot temperatures (160 F+) that are seen in industrial composting facilities. It’s rare for temperatures to ever get that hot in a home composter, or in a forest.

With the advent of these new compostable bioplastics, industrial composting facilities have had to become very defensive to prevent items that won’t break down, and that often look the same, from contaminating their final product. Nobody likes to find a plastic spoon in the compost they spread on their garden.

To indicate what materials will break down in an industrial composting facility, standards like the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) seal are now found on many compostable products. It certifies that products meet the ASTM test standards that are designed to simulate industrial composting conditions. Believe it or not, there currently isn’t an official US standard for testing home (or natural) composting. Mushroom® Packaging has passed all the tests and has been BPI Certified. If your city has compost collection, you can toss Mushroom® Packaging parts in your compost collection container. Instead of ending up in a landfill, your packaging will become food for plants.

For natural products, like sticks and banana peels, there is no US label of certification. Obviously, these products will break down naturally in a home compost pile or tumbler. The beauty of Mushroom® Packaging, is that it too will break down naturally, at low temperatures at home. It’s made of materials that grow on farms and in forests, and there’s nothing artificial about it. From the earth, to the earth… and that makes us feel good.

We Ecovators have done a lot of experimentation with home composting Mushroom® Packaging parts on productive home gardens, and we’ve also taken some fun field trips to some of the largest industrial composting operations. Stay tuned for a series of upcoming posts about the science, and the big juicy vegetables that have resulted from our compost trials.

– Sam Harrington

Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre featured on Forbes 30 under 30 list

We are thrilled to announce that Eben and Gavin have made the 2015 Forbes 30 under 30 list! This list, now in its 4th year, highlights some of the top innovators, entrepreneurs, and game changers that are under the age of 30.

Ecovative is featured under the Manufacturing category- a new addition to the list of categories since last year’s list.

Read the full announcement from Forbes here: http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2015/01/05/30-under-30-reinventing-manufacturing-in-a-greener-tech-savvier-world/

Ecovative is even featured as a 2015 Standout! http://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinehoward/2015/01/05/30-under-30-who-are-moving-the-world-2015/

Be sure to check out the announcements from the other categories, including Science and Gaming, to name a few.

Thank you to everyone who nominated Ecovative for this list, and thank you to the Forbes team for making this a great experience for us. Keep an eye on our social media for upcoming links to the video interview Forbes conducted at our Green Island facility!

Twitter: @ecovative

Facebook: facebook.com/ecovative

Update: visit http://www.forbes.com/30under30/#/ for a complete list and to view our video interview